Las Vegas Sun

August 20, 2014

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Columnist Tom Gorman: On Stand Down for the Homeless helpers, who show that there is compassion in Las Vegas

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (702) 259-2310.

Normally, Cathy Pizzo would have been at her desk in Summerlin, selling insurance for AAA.

On this day, though, she's stooped over a wash basin in a public bathroom, squeezing a dollop of Paul Mitchell shampoo onto a stranger's head.

For 10 minutes, Cathy scrubbed and stroked the woman's long, graying hair, slowly building a lather. Joan Sun was the eighth person Cathy had shampooed so far, and more were waiting in line. I was sure her back would ache later from bending over for so long, but she shrugged it off.

"I'm really glad I can help," she said. "Everyone's been so appreciative."

The occasion was the 13th annual Las Vegas Stand Down for the Homeless, a kind of community fair in which dozens of local organizations provide such services as mammograms and HIV testing, job leads and haircuts (preceded by the requisite shampoo).

A couple of thousand homeless people, give or take, attended the event at the Cashman Center on Wednesday. More striking, I think, was that several hundred volunteers showed up as well. That doesn't count the quasi-professional social workers who volunteer through the likes of Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Westcare and others. They were there, too, along with health care professionals and attorneys and experts on veterans benefits.

But I'm talking about students from UNLV, personnel from Nellis Air Force Base, and employees of AAA and Supercuts, and just regular folks who as individuals wanted to help their fellow man for a day, even if it was as simple -- and compassionate -- as washing a stranger's hair.

So this isn't a column about homeless people, but about the volunteers who care about them, and who deserve our thanks and respect.

If you think that's sappy, I bet you don't volunteer. I'm not passing judgment on you because you may have a legitimate reason.

But I have a hunch that people who complain that Las Vegas lacks community spirit are people who don't volunteer. I'm not sure which dynamic feeds the other, but the two go hand in hand. People who volunteer in Scouts or youth sports, school or church, or at Helping Hands, a hospice or hospital gift shop, are the people who give Las Vegas its heart and soul.

Fran Smith is in the business of recruiting volunteers. She said her biggest challenge is finding volunteers to help people with mental or physical disabilities. "It's outside most people's comfort zones," she said.

Smith is the executive director of the Volunteer Center of Southern Nevada, which offers one-stop shopping for people looking for a place to help.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has ranked the 50 states in their level of volunteerism "and guess who was last," she said. "People justify it by saying we've grown so fast, and it takes five to eight years for people to settle in a new community -- to take care of their housing and jobs and school -- before they volunteer."

She doesn't buy it.

"I think if people volunteered in their previous community, they bring that tradition with them," she said. By that thinking, most people who move here are selfish. But not everyone.

At Cashman Center, volunteers helped set up and break down the booths, picked up trash, baby-sat and served lunch. Almost every volunteer started the day by interviewing homeless people one by one, to complete statistical surveys.

Among them was Rebecca Testa, a 29-year-old UNLV student and Denny's waitress. "There are a lot of negative views about homeless people," she said, "but many of us are just two paychecks away from being homeless."

Cathy Pizzo was now giving her 10th shampoo of the morning. For this, she was taking off work and losing a day of sales commissions.

So, to her and to all the volunteers: thank you.

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